How Shared Housing Can Help Counter Social Isolation Among Seniors

The term "elder orphan" describes a senior citizen who doesn't have children, a spouse, or family nearby to help them out. Elder orphans are often socially isolated and at-risk of not having their basic needs met. As the Baby Boomer generation grows older, housing alternatives, such as senior villagessenior cohousing networks, and shared housing units, are emerging as community-focused solutions to the problem of isolation. Shared housing offers seniors social connection, an informal support system, assistance with tasks, and an opportunity to save money. 
 
We spoke with Annamarie Pluhar, shared housing advocate and the author of "Sharing Housing: a Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates," about the best ways for seniors to find and keep housemates and enjoy sharing their home with someone else.
 
Cat Johnson: What makes shared housing a good option for seniors?
 
Annamarie Pluhar: Many seniors have the experience of losing lifetime friends and relatives. Their social network frays and develops big holes. Sharing housing gives you informal social connections. We live in a society in which it is extraordinarily difficult just to find people to be with. It's awful how difficult that can be.
 
What happens to people as they retire is they no longer have the social connection of work and may not even realize how important that was. Living alone when you're working a 40 or 60 hour per week job is heaven. But once you're retired, living alone can end up being very isolating — especially as we become less mobile, especially as we can’t drive at night. You have this diminishing of physical ability that makes it harder to get out and see friends.
 
One of the very big reason it's a good option is that if you have to go into the hospital for a procedure, there are hospitals that will not release you unless there is somebody at home. They want to see you picked up by someone.
 
Backing off that big, scary thing, just having somebody at home when you're not up to par— it's so much easier to ask someone to pick up a can of soup when they're living with you than if you have to call a friend who lives across town.
 
You don't hear about many seniors living together as housemates. Why is this?
 
There are generational differences. People who are in their eighties and nineties left home, they got married, they never really lived in group situations with people they didn't otherwise know. That's not necessarily true with the Boomer generation. Many of us had experiences with group living and living in community
 
If a senior is interested in finding a housemate, how do you suggest they begin that process?
 
The most important place to start is getting clear about who you are and how you live at home. What is it you must have and what it is that you cannot live with? This is very different for different people. You cannot assume that your own patterns are other people's— or not other people's — patterns. Get self-aware and self-conscious of those things.
 
Oftentimes, people overreact. They didn't think of something so when somebody lives with them who does that thing, they think they could never live with anybody. It becomes like a pendulum. I want people to get very granular about the things that are true for them.
 
Compatibility is based on how you live at home. It's not about politics or religion, it's about practical things: cleanliness, neatness, routine, kitchen use, noise, including tv, radio, music, guests, tasks and bills.
 
If you have clarity and agreement about how you want to live, you can live together. You may not be the best of friends, but you can have a comfortable home. A homemate is somebody you like and respect, whose way of living is compatible enough with your own that both feel comfortable.
 
How do you suggest seniors find a housemate?
 
Look around, listen to what's going on, tell your network you're interested in sharing housing, and keep telling your network. The other person is going to be in transition, whether coming out of a relationship, changing jobs, retiring, widowed. 
 
To get to know one another, take a trip together. What's it like to be together? It's not the same as living together, it's much more intense. Backing off of that, have meals together, take a day trip, feel out whether there's going to be a relationship there. See if it feels good to have that person around.
 
Any tips for people once they’ve found compatible housemates?
 
Practically, it's much easier to clean out two rooms to make room for somebody than to clear out a whole house and downsize. But it might be that someone wants a clean sweep. They may want to move into a new space and share the lease.
 
I think three people is better than two. It changes the dynamics. Two can be fine, but it can be intense. I want to put into people’s heads the idea of three. There’s movement and the relationships are more dynamic.
 
I imagine people are concerned about living with a "stranger." How do you address this concern?
 
You're never moving in with a stranger. Spend time with the person so they don't feel like a stranger. You might try a probationary period where you spend a week living together without actually moving in. You should never be moving in with somebody who feels totally like a stranger.
 
Get references. It's absolutely essential that you talk to three people. If a potential housemate seems like they might work out, talk to two people who know the person — preferably somebody who has lived with the person, but many elders don't have that kind of reference. They should have friends, though, they should have people in their community who know them. It would be a big red flag if somebody didn't know who to ask, or if their reference had only known them six months.
 
How do you recommend people handle the money aspect of shared housing?
 
In my book I write about the difference between the householder and the homeseeker. The householder is taking the risk of opening up her house. In exchange for that risk she should be given a chunk of money: first month, last month, and security deposit, assuming that's within in the law because every state is different.
 
That last month protects the homeowner. As soon as money gets late, they have the last month and they say, this is not working. This is a hard place to be. What I want is for it to not happen, which is why you check references.
 
These days, it's easy to use direct deposit for rent and bills. Fees should include utilities so there’s not a big, complicated figuring out about the heat bill and the electrical bill. That's just a recipe for unhappiness. So, just one number.
 
Some seniors say they don't need the money, that they just want someone to live with them. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It gets very murky very quickly and it's easy for people to feel taken advantage of.
 
What are some of the challenges of seniors sharing a house?
 
A big one is the question, when does housemate shift to caretaker? There has to be open communication. At no point should a housemate feel burdened with responsibility. It's possible for many people to be generously and sympathetically helpful and that’s good. We need each other and we need to be needed. It's a gift to help another person. This is a very important thing that we've lost sight of.
 
The questions becomes, when does it become a burden? At that point, the relationship needs to shift: a caretaker needs to be brought in, the house needs to dissolve and the person needs to move into assisted care. It's difficult because none of us like the idea of getting old. But a whole lot of people are way more capable way later than our cultural story would have it.
 
Any other insights for seniors considering sharing housing?
 
Only four percent of Americans over 65 live in nursing homes. Even 85 and up, the number is only 14 percent. This means that the worry about caretaking may be overly emphasized.
 
People look for ways to make sharing housing scary — the what-if. We're wired to worry about things. We pay attention more to negative than positive. Seniors sharing housing is an uphill cause but many people think this is a great idea. I just haven't figured out how to help people shift from thinking it's a great idea to doing it. I like the fact that my homemate idea is relatively simple. It doesn't require the infrastructure of cohousing, zoning, built environment — it's about sharing housing. 
 
I find that people start sharing housing for money reasons and they stick to it for the companionship. Having someone at home is comforting.
 
Header photo by Patrick via Flickr. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter.
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